In most of the developed world, for most of the post-World War II era, the notion that torture might be OK was about as open to discussion as the notion that adulterers should be stoned or that Africans should be enslaved. Now, however, torture is back on the table, and even thinkers as mainstream as Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz refuse to categorically rule out its use.
This sea change in how we think about torture came about largely as a result of the revelation that Americans were, in fact, torturing inmates at military prisons, most notably in occupied Iraq. Many of us were shocked by this state of affairs and found the argument most frequently trotted out in support of torture, that extreme measures are necessary in a time of war, specious at best. There is, however, a grain of truth in this linkage of war with torture: Torture may not be necessary when a country is at war, but when a country is at war torture is likely to occur. We know that mistreatment of prisoners has been a part of the occupation of Iraq; can anyone doubt that it was a part of earlier, more popular occupations?
If such skeptics do exist, Terese Svoboda’s meditation on her uncle’s time as a prison guard in occupied Japan may shatter their rose-colored glasses, and it will do so in a way more subtle — and therefore more compelling — than straight history or angry polemic might have done. Instead she gives us what Robert Polito calls a “nonfiction montage” that is equal parts memoir, mystery, and indictment of those responsible for the management of military prisons during the occupation.
Svoboda’s uncle was, she tells us, Superman, “with black Clark Kent glasses . . . and as handsome as all get-out.” Thus it is no surprise that this man of steel becomes, after his time in the service, a successful entrepreneur. What is a surprise is that in 2004, just as the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib is coming to light, Svoboda’s uncle falls into a deep depression and, at the same time, begins to send his writer-niece tapes on which he talks about his time in Japan. It becomes clear that he has a secret; Svoboda’s book is largely a chronicle of her attempt to uncover it.
She learns that her uncle was not innocent of the callousness and cruelty with which occupiers and prison guards in all times and places are too often involved. In addition to swindling Japanese out of thousands of dollars in black market scams, for example, he also deserted his child and Japanese wife. We learn, too, that he killed a prisoner in an incident that may have been an accident, or perhaps self-defense. None of these transgressions, however, seems to be the mysterious bit of history that torments Svoboda’s uncle. Rather, it appears to have been the hushed-up executions of American servicemen — most of them black — who were his charges at the stockade.
Not long after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, not long after he began to explore his memories of the Occupation, Svoboda’s uncle put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. We will never know whether he killed himself because of guilt over his wartime actions, and we will never know — records have been willfully expunged — the details of the executions, but thanks to Svoboda’s dogged research, we now know more about a dark corner of the occupation of Japan.
“If my uncle’s story smokes in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib,” Svoboda writes, “and the ‘burners,’ those precursors of the shredders, have escaped, then history must read the smoke.” The smoke Svoboda reads is somber and compelling.
David Cozy is a writer and critic and teaches at Showa Women’s University.